Saturday, 12 July 2014

St. Paul’s Dilemma

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15)

What St. Paul is expressing here is what I consider to be the greatest problem in philosophy.  I do not presume to solve this problem here, but instead to create awareness of it.  It’s easy for religions and philosophies to establish creeds (statements of belief) and codes (prescribed actions derived from those beliefs), but it is not so easy to put those into action.  As Barthomew Roberts observed in the game Assassin’s Creed Black Flag, “All Men desire to live by a Code, or a Creed, yes? Yet when pressed, most defer to their instincts rather than the Laws that bind them.”
The answer lies in the human soul.  By soul I do not mean some mystical energy that transcends death.  The scientific explanation for that thing traditionally perceived as the soul is in fact simply  each individual’s unique psycho-emotional make-up.  You can call it the soul, the mind, the sense of life, or simply just the self.  No matter what you call it, it is simply a person’s unique programming.
The philosopher Ayn Rand wrote that humans are creatures of self-made soul.  In a similar vein Nietzsche’s concept of “the will to power” is the quest to alter one’s programming and therefore take control over one’s life through self-mastery.  When a person engages on a quest for self-improvement or self-help; when someone chooses to live by a creed and code; when a particular religion or philosophy attempts to convert people to their creeds and codes; or even when a boss demands that their employee to change his attitude, all of these things are about reprogramming the soul.
I find that the best metaphor for understanding the soul is the computer.  A computer can be said to have four parts: the hardware, the operating system software, the factory pre-installed software, and then the personal software downloaded by the user.  Each of these are analogous to the elements of our psycho-emotional make-up.
Hardware:  This is the physical aspect which includes our electro-chemical brain and how the body produces and responds to these chemicals.  For example, changes in serotonin levels can alter how someone perceives and responds to reality.  In terms of study, this is represented by the fields of neurobiology and psychiatry.  When we speak of mind altering drugs, we are talking about affecting the computer’s hardware.
Operating System:  Are you a Mac or a PC?  Each operating system is closely linked to the hardware and determines how the computer functions.  Likewise, humans have evolved certain instinctive modes of behaviour as a species.  This is the field of evolutionary psychology.  For the most part, people are largely unaware of how our operating system affects our behaviour, but it accounts for a great many of our natural drives.
In the age old debate of Nature vs. Nurture, these are the Nature part of the equation.  The next level represents Nurture.
Factory Software:  in a computer, these are the programs pre-installed by the manufacturer.  The same holds true for the human computer.  The manufacturers in this case are the parents.  The child may have inherited certain hardware and OS aspects, but this refers mainly to what is called social conditioning and takes place during the first roughly seven years of life.  The agents of this conditioning are primarily parents and siblings but later in the process friends, peers, teachers, and mass media all come to play a role in framing how reality is perceived and understood.
Social conditioning can be divided in two phases.  The first is the unconscious phase.  This is where an infant absorbs things like language, dialect, and even facial expressions from their parents.  Although the child is conscious, they are primarily acting on instinct since they are still developing their cognitive abilities.  The second phase is the conscious phase where the child has the capacity to interpret and process their experiences.  The child may respond either positively or negatively to their conditioning.  For example, if the parent makes the child do chores the child may respond positively and accept a program for a positive work ethic, or the child may respond negatively and accept a program for a negative work ethic.  It all depends on how the child emotionally responds to the experience.  
Despite the child being conscious and cognitive, this period of life becomes largely forgotten. So as an adult a person may have a set of pre-programmed responses to certain stimuli, but have no idea how that program came into existence.  As a child, this person may have seen the colour orange just as he was startled by a car backfiring.  The result is distaste for the colour orange lasting the remainder of his life even if that event has been completely forgotten.
When you first get a computer or laptop and first turn it on this is what you have: hardware, an operating system, and factory software.  You did not design it and you have very little control of how it does what it does.  Likewise, your soul is as it is. You had no say in how the electro-chemical brain of yours was designed and wired and you had no control over how that brain was first programmed by the agents of your social conditioning.  What you can control is how you choose to use the computer given what you have.
The final level is the personal programs.  These are largely determined by personal experiences and repeated patterns of behaviour.  We are what we repeatedly do.  The problem is that Nature and Nurture have already predetermined how we process our experiences, how we perceive reality, and the beliefs and values that drive our actions.  When a person says, “follow your heart”, “trust your instincts”, “let your conscience be your guide”, or “remain true to yourself” what they are really saying is to follow your programming.  What if your programming is deemed not beneficial?
In the world of the pick-up artists, men with no success with the ladies began observing men who were successful.  When asked about their technique these so-called “naturals” couldn’t answer.  They were just following their programming.  Maybe they were born with higher testosterone levels, or maybe they had a positive response to a confident and outgoing father figure.  However it happened, they were just programmed to be successful with women.  The aspiring pick-up artists analysed the behaviours of these naturals and were able to successfully replicate the results by changing their programming.              
This is the essence of St. Paul’s Dilemma.  We do not do what we want to do and we do the very things we hate.  Why?  Because there is a conflict between the personal programs that we want to run and the limitations imposed by our other systems.  It does not matter what creeds or codes we conceive, accept and preach to the world if they run counter to our programs.  To be truly free to act as we choose regardless of our programs we need to find ways to consciously hack our systems.  Otherwise we will always defer to our basic instincts when pressed thus rendering every professed creed and every imposed moral code no more than folly.
I mentioned early that another word used for the soul is simply the self.  To change the programming is to change the self, and the self does not want to be changed.  Part of the program is a code for self-preservation.  When a program is changed a person is no longer themselves.   They become someone else.  There are even changes to the hardware as the brain patterns adapt to new modes of thinking.  Attempts at self-reprogramming are therefore often met with resistance.  Likewise, challenging another person’s programming also meets with resistance.  In many ways this is the source of all human conflict.  It is not so much a war of ideas as a war of programs often expressed as ego – the cry of a defensive self.
I also equated the soul with the mind.  Although the soul is widely perceived as the self, there is the expression, “you are not your mind”.  In the computer analogy, the Nature and Nurture aspects are what we commonly call the mind.  The personal programs are the real you, however you cannot function without those other systems.  The best designation is that you are your will to act and not your mind.  The mind facilitates internal and external activity, but it is the will sitting in the driver’s seat.  The internal conflicts we experience stem from the conflict between the will and the mind.
A man is in club and spies an attractive girl.  The will wants to talk to her but the mind does not.  So the mind sends out warning signals in the form of what is commonly called approach anxiety.  The will can either succumb to the demands of his programming or it can recognise the warning and act anyway and thus displaying the virtue of courage.
The book series His Mortal Instruments, part of which was made into the film The Golden Compass, takes place in an alternate reality where a person’s soul exists independently outside of their body in the form of an animal called a daemon.  I think this represents a good way to approach the problem.  
The mind, soul, or programming is a trusted companion and advisor separate and distinct from the will and whose advice is communicated in the form of emotions and instincts that can be either accepted or rejected by the will.  The key to self-mastery may lie in cultivating an attitude that recognises this distinction.  In this way the will may accept a creed or code and then encourage the mind to accept this new programming without it being perceived as a viral threat to the self.  For this to work, the first and most important step lies in convincing the program that it is not the self.  You are your will to act and not your mind.  Perhaps this recognition will resolve St. Paul’s Dilemma.